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Night Carbs, Night Waking, Night Fasting: New Research Covers Everything About Bedtime Except Night Swimming*

Posted Jan 22 2013 12:40am


Hey kids! Do you like number crunching? Manipulating other people like marionettes? Watching people do intimate things when they think they’re alone and recording them? And then telling the whole world about it? If so, then human research is the job for you! But seriously, this new crop of health research is all about what people do in the dark and if you’ve ever wanted to try out being a professional creeper then you’re going to love this. Although, just FYI, the “intimate things” I’m referring to are eating, sleeping and excreting.

(Is this a good time to tell you that there is already video of me using the bathroom floating around out there? In college my best friends worked at a gas station who was managed by a guy who thought it would be awesome to hide a camera in the ladies’ restroom and film us all doing our duty, er, doody. The only reason we ever found out was ’cause he started showing it to people and got arrested. If that’s not reason enough to bring back aprons as a fashion statement, I don’t know what is!)

Anyhow, back to bedtime! Three new studies released in the past week have interesting things to say about what our bodies do while we’re not aware of them and how we can best manipulate this knowledge for everyone’s fave activity: Losing weight. Kidding! The studies actually have a lot of interesting things to say about how to improve your cognitive abilities, reduce inflammation, and tap into your body’s natural rhythms.

Carbs at Night, Dieter’s Delight

“Carb back-loading” – or eating your daily allotment of baked sweet potatoes in the evening – is not a new concept, especially among people who are particularly concerned with manipulating their body composition, like body builders. But this is one of the first studies to try and see if there is any truth in the tale. In an Israeli study of 78 Israeli police officers (I don’t know why that tidbit about their profession amuses me so much but it does), the gun-toting citizen-protecting faculties-needing officers were put on a diet of 1300 calories a day and then divided into two groups. All macronutrient ratios were held equal but the first group ate their carbs spread out over the day while the second group ate the majority of their carbs right before bed.

The results were, frankly, freaking amazing. “Nighttime carb eaters lost 27 percent more body fat than people on the standard diet. Surprisingly, they also felt 13.7 percent fuller at the end of the study than the beginning, while regular dieters were hungrier. What’s more, the level of inflammatory hormones — which can lead to heart disease and cancer — in the nighttime group’s blood decreased by 27.8 percent compared to only 5.8 percent in the standard dieters.”

I mean thirteen POINT SEVEN percent fuller?! I love it when researchers write stuff like that. But yeah, I’d take it, fractional percentage and all. Going to bed with a growly tummy doesn’t just make Pooh Bears cranky. And all diet talk aside, the part that stood out to me most was the decrease in inflammatory hormones – something all of us could use no matter what our weight.

Verdict: I knew there was a reason I love a big bowl of coconut-oil popcorn right before bed!

Segmented Sleep, Not Just For Worms Anymore

The second study hearkens way back to the days before electric lighting when people were basically forced to sleep and rise with the sun. (Do candle light or kerosene lamps count? I have no idea.) Researchers have long posited – and this has been born out in artificial lab studies – that the human body left to its own devices will sleep in a very different pattern than the one imposed on it by modern living. In previous studies, people given no light cues slept an average of 10 hours a night and after a few weeks stopped sleeping all of them in a row. Rather, the people fell into a pattern of “segmented sleep” or alternating periods of sleep and wakefulness scattered throughout the day.

It sounds insane at first to those of us who’ve been told all our lives to get our 8 hours of beauty rest every night but scientists point out that segmented sleep is actually built in to many cultures – like the afternoon siesta in Spain. Looking at records of sleep patterns from as far back as the 6th century, they found even more evidence of a “first sleep” from nightfall until around midnight, followed by a 1-2 hour period of wakefulness and then a “second sleep” from 2 am until dawn.

But how does that work in a modern world? In this study “subjects grew to like experiencing nighttime in a new way. Once they broke their conception of what form sleep should come in, they looked forward to the time in the middle of the night as a chance for deep thinking of all kinds, whether in the form of self-reflection, getting a jump on the next day or amorous activity.” The key, notes one scientist , is to “break the tyranny of the 8-hour block.”

While this approach is great for taking some of the stress out of insomnia, the second and equally important factor is that if people are given time to wake in the night then they must also be given time to sleep during the day. Much research has been done into the effectiveness and power of the short afternoon nap and perhaps this is why?

Verdict: Sleep is still one of the most important things you can do for your health. And you still need at least 7-8 hours of it. But if your schedule allows it, a little flexibility might allow for better productivity and less stress. Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed something interesting. I’ll get up to take Jelly Bean to the potty (little girl is SO good about not wetting her bed!) and then after tucking her back in, I’ve found that some of my best thinking/writing comes to me. So I’ll stay up for an hour and jot stuff down. The other night I got more work done in that one hour than I usually get done in three. My fingers could barely keep up with all my thoughts! I don’t do this every night but when it happens at least I don’t have to feel guilty about it!

Sleep Yourself Smarter

Lastly we have an interesting study from Harvard where Alzheimer’s disease researchers Dr. Richard Isaacson and Dr. Christopher Ochner stumbled across something that will help all humans with brains. (Sorry dolphins, we’ll catch you on the next go-round I’m sure, when you show up in your space pods as our benevolent overlords.) As the doctors were examining the effects of diet on the progression of Alzheimer’s and MCI (mild cognitive impairment) they discovered that no matter what the people ate, as long as they had a 12-hour break between dinner and the next morning’s breakfast, they had significant cognitive improvement. They literally slept themselves smarter.

The researchers explain, “Fasting for 12 hours at night is the safest way to put the body into mild “dietary ketosis,” a state in which the brain must use ketones as fuel because there’s not enough available glucose. Ketones not only protect brain cells, they also improve memory function in patients with Alzheimer’s and MCI, because their brains have a decreased ability to use glucose.” Apparently these findings held true even in populations without the illnesses. And on the flip side, a study from the Mayo Clinic found that overeating can double your rate of memory loss.

Verdict: Surprisingly this is something I already do. When I first started Intuitive Eating and stopped being a slave to my “six mini-meals a day”, I found that my natural hunger led me to eat an evening snack (yes, usually something carb-o-riffic, like in the first study) and then I’m not hungry immediately upon waking. I usually have a huge drink of something warm (unsweetened lemon herb tea is my current fave) and then a couple of hours later eat breakfast. All told it works out to about 12 hours of “fasting” every night and I don’t feel any hunger. (And if I do? I eat. I’m not going to become a slave to the 12-hour window either – it just happens to feel right most of the time.)


Basically I take this as more evidence that you should just do whatever feels best to you and your body So whether you prefer conventional health wisdom (“No carbs after 2″ “8 straight hours of sleep” “Mini-meals”) or if you’re like me, now you have research that supports whatever works for you. For me, I love it when research tells me to do what I’m already doing! And without guilt! Bring on the popcorn, naps and late breakfasts!

What about you – do any of these studies surprise you like they did me? Do you naturally already do any of these things? Do they change your mind about your eating, sleeping and excreting habits?

*And how to make my 3-year-old imp GO TO BED ALREADY. Mommy is NOT a perpetual motion machine!

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